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Strategies for Decreasing Plagiarism of Lab Assignments and Reports

  • Create more lab exercises than needed for a year (for example have 15–20 for a 12 lab course) and rotate them yearly

  • For some labs, have students write up the report in class. The simplest way to do this is to have “answer sheets” that students fill in. The sheets can have the format of a formal report or may simply be questions to answer. Clearly state in your policy that students cannot use reports from previous years, and clarify how much students may collaborate with one another on this exercise. Paul Delaney [2] points out that these types of reports have the bonus of encouraging students to work hard and concentrate during the laboratory period and to always come prepared. The McGill website on plagiarism [1] adds that these less formal reports usually cut down on marking time for the TA. 

  • If you use answer sheets asking specific questions, change some of the questions each year. Even small changes help. 

  • Change some of parameters in a given lab each year. Your ability to do this will vary according to the lab, but with a little thought and creativity, it should be possible. For example, if you are studying the effect of hypertonic solutions on cells one year, make it hypotonic the next year, or change the molarity of the solutions used. Even small changes will give students the sense that last year’s results are not useful. 

  • For some labs, it may be possible to give each group a slightly different experiment. For example, each student could test the effects of solutions with different molarities and/or different solutes. In the case of experiments involving unknowns, give each group a different unknown. This way all results will be different, and students may even learn more by examining the data set from the entire class. 

  • Include a mix of in-class and out-of-class (sometimes called informal and formal) reports. Change which labs require out-of-class or formal reports each year to decrease the use previous years' reports. If you are incorporating new or changed labs, ensure that they require out-of-class reports. 

  • For out-of-class reports, have students include a signed statement confirming that the report they are handing in has been completed within the course guidelines for academic integrity. [The McGill website [1] provides helpful suggestions for preparing this type of statement.] 

  • Reduce the need to “police” by allowing collaboration between partners for some reports. [1] Obviously any intention to vary levels of collaboration from one report to the next must be accompanied by very clear guidelines.   

  • Have a portion of the lab grade come from quizzes and exams.

  • Incorporate oral reporting or interviews into more lab courses [1,4]. Since oral reports require students to discuss and justify data and interpretation, they discourage dishonesty. Harris [4] suggests asking specific questions about the written work, such as ‘”What exactly do you mean here by …”’. A similar useful technique would be a post-report interview or even a written report or “metalearning essay” [4], where students are asked the following types of questions: 

    • What problems did you encounter as you completed your experiments, and how did you solve them?

    • How do you feel these difficulties affected your results?

    • Were your results what you expected? Why or why not?

    • What have you learned about science and about how scientific information is gathered as the result of this work?

    • What future experiments would you perform in order to extend or improve your data?

    • What were the general conclusions you were able to draw from your data?

  • Reduce “hand-me-down” laboratory reports from previous years by collecting and destroying used lab books at the end of the year [3] and by returning reports directly to students rather than setting them outside the door where they can be stolen[1].

  • TAs are integral to ensuring that academic integrity is maintained in the lab [2]. TAs must have a strong presence in the lab, visiting each student group regularly and forging a positive relationship with each student. TAs should look at students' data, ask if they have questions and whether they understand the data. Students who know their TA is aware of their data and progress are less likely to feel that they can “fool” the TA with a dishonest write-up. Students who respect their TA and are enjoying their lab are also less likely to want to be dishonest.